A lot of people proudly claim to love the city they live in, or the one they’re originally from. In general, I am not one of those people – and having lived a lot of places across America, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to make that visceral connection. Yes, I’ve appreciated the history, architecture, planning, flora, and fauna of physical places. There is something about the way a place smells, the way its natural element presents themselves both visually and orally, its latitude, altitude and distance from large bodies of water, the way the stars (including the sun) are arrayed at specific geographic locations, that make each village, hamlet, town, city, and metropolis different and unique.
I understand a deep and abiding connection with land. I’m of Swiss, German, and Irish stock. That connection is part of my heritage, part of my cultural consciousness. I recognize this, in part, because when I traveled to Bern Canton in Switzerland, where my paternal grandmother’s family originated, I recognized a landscape I had never before seen, experienced a “homecoming” if you will, a sense of deep understanding when I walked down narrow city streets, crossed Alpine meadows, and stared up at snow-covered Alps. I’ve not really had that experience anywhere else; I’ve not traveled to Strasbourg, Germany, Cork, Ireland, or any other family originating points for comparison. I’ve had other physical memory of places: for example, I was born at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Watching a movie about Jack Kevorkian almost 45 years later, I felt a physical sensation of recognition when they showed scenes at the hospital. I’ve also felt a sense of loss, rather than belonging, when happening by former addresses in Ohio, California, Boston, Memphis, Seattle, and New Orleans.
But that doesn’t seem to me what people feel when they say, for example, that they “love New York”. Maybe it’s a PART of it, sure, but I don’t believe just connection to a physical place is the whole of it. That’s like saying that the physical act of sex is the whole of loving a person.
There are a number of factors that tie us, directly or indirectly, to a place’s physicality. Logistics, convenience, knowing where things are, having the interstate system memorized, understanding and appreciating landmarks necessary for navigation, social interaction, and safety – these are indirect physical attributes of a place. But honestly, I’ve accumulated systems encompassing these factors for most of the places I’ve ever lived. Yeah, some places are better, or easier, or faster, in terms of their layout and features. But usually some part of that set compensates for other parts. It all balances out, in the end.
The rest of what makes a place a place, though, is its people. The actual individual people who live and work in a city. The infrastructure supporting those people – the education, culture, spirituality, politics, diversity, and so on. And that infrastructure affects still another set of indirect factors contributing to love: security, privacy, safety. Those things are indeed derived from a place’s people, not its physical attributes.
I’ve liked and loved a lot of people, wherever I’ve lived. And whether they were natives or transplants to those locations, a lot of what they were was the result of how they grew into or adapted to those locations. Some of those people, if you moved them somewhere else, would not have been so lovable or likable. Others that I didn’t really appreciate where they were, might have become MORE interesting. I’m definitely not sure that if you took everyone I loved across the world and put them all in the same physical location, that they would either get along, thrive, or survive relationship with me.
Have I been different people, in each place I’ve lived? Sometimes, sure. It’s a social necessity to adapt, to conform to certain norms in order to establish each two-way definition of equality required to affect communication between people. Are these mere externals? I’m again not sure. Like when you move where a different language is spoken, you have to learn to think in that language to really absorb it, sometimes the energy of a place, by changing the way you do things (e.g., travel, shop, eat, split indoor v. outdoor time, entertain yourself or others), can change who you are – or at least who you THINK you are.
The point is that where I’m at in my life, right now, what attracts me to a city, a physical place – other than its striking physical beauty, particularly if its a geographical experience I’ve not had before – is less WHAT I can experience there, as much as WHO I experience it with. And the presence or absence of that connection (including the presence or absence of the possibility of connection) is what makes a place alive, to me. To find the right balance, to seek beauty that is alive, and life that I find beautiful: that is the quest, right?